I’m taking a math class. It’s to help me brush up for the GRE (a test graduate programs like to see before they decide whether or not to admit you). Math was never my strong suit. More than one teacher passed me because they knew I was working my butt off and they felt sorry for me.
My new math teacher is impossibly young. He says people always say he looks younger than his age, which is reassuring since he looks about 20. He’s Asian, stocky, clean-cut and full of himself. Full of himself because he knows he’s right. He’s on the side of truth and justice, self sufficiency and hard work. Math. He’s on the side of math. Unfairly maligned, too often blamed and made the whipping boy of the undisciplined and the lazy mind.
On the first day of class, as he’s handing out course materials he begins to try to indoctrinate us. It’s subtle. “You guys should think about something while you’re here. Every day I hear people say they’re not good at math, or that they can’t do math, that they hate math. It’s socially acceptable. People admit it all the time. But do you ever hear people say they’re not good at reading, or they hate reading? People would never admit that. Why? It’s something to think about.”
Something to think about indeed. Let me process for a minute, here…. Ok, done. I hate my new math teacher.
We get to the part of class where we’re talking about percents. He decides to tell us a cautionary tale. Once, while walking through the mall, he saw a big sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond. 40 percent off everything. He spied a beautiful trash can, one he’d been wanting for a long time. Stainless, with a pneumatic closer so it won’t slam shut. It started off around a hundred and fifty bucks. He grabbed his find and took it to the counter.
He figured the girl behind the counter was about 16 years old. She rang him up and told him his total was 60 bucks. Being an upstanding citizen, he told the girl that couldn’t be right. She said, nope, that’s the right price. He started to try to explain the difference between forty percent of something and forty percent off something. He said he finally gave up and took his generous discount… Because (and here we see the weak-minded get their just desserts despite the benevolent attempts of the math-ters), “I decided, look, if they’re dumb enough to hire someone like that, they deserve what they get.”
In case you’re the type of person for whom math comes easily, but writing or parsing out language does not, let me walk you through what I heard on my first day of math class after 20 years off.
- It is socially acceptable to be bad at math, and to admit it
- It is socially unacceptable to be bad at reading and to admit it. Reading being the favorite son of the society.
- If we are bad at math, it is probably due to our willingness to accept that as our fate, due to the prejudice our culture has against math. If we are good at it, it is due at least in part to our ability to surmount the social pressures trying to dumb us down. Our moral superiority shines through the dark cloud of anti-intellectualism.
- No one is dumb enough to admit they aren’t a good reader, this is because our culture provides support and encouragement, making the inability to read a non-option
- People who are bad at math shouldn’t be hired, and it’s ok to take advantage of them without feeling bad
- Not only is it OK to take advantage of them, but also anyone who deigns to employ them or otherwise give them legitimacy.
- It is acceptable to spend ninety dollars on a container for your trash.
Setting aside the fact that we’ve spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get our son to be able to read, I was a little insulted.
The more hours I invest into trying to learn math, the more angry I get. I sort of believed what people said to me for a long time which was this: “You’re a smart girl, you have a high IQ, there is no reason you can’t do math. You’ve bought into the societal expectation that girls aren’t good at math, and you’re not really trying.”
Now I remember glazing over in math class in high school, so maybe I was lazy. But in college, I remember trying really hard. I couldn’t make things stick in my head. Even that I had chalked up to being distracted, unmotivated or poorly taught. This time, I was going to (am still going to) really try hard. Focus and do my homework, pay attention in class, ask for help when I don’t understand.
Every time I do math homework, I come close to tears. Every. Time. I think of myself as a competent person who can do anything she sets her mind to. This is the decade of my life where I learn to accept my limits. I’m still going to work hard (hours every day) to improve my math score (which was in the 33rd percentile). But I’m going to know that when I have trouble, it’s because the math part of my brain was accidentally coated in Teflon during production. It makes things harder for me.
The numbers and chunks of problems seem like they move around on the page when I do homework. I can’t seem to accurately transcribe a problem from one part of the page to the other. I can get a problem right, but when it comes to to the next problem of the same type, I suddenly cannot remember how I did the last one. Sometimes when I narrate out loud, I say one number, but write a different one (which I only notice when someone who’s working with me, stops me). It’s like trying to watch a pixellated TV screen, or one where the horizontal control is out of whack.
I’m not asking for disability payments,or anything. I’m just asking for a little nonjudgmental understanding, and an admission of what a crap-shoot intelligences are. Math people, I’m just asking for you to help me as best you can, without being so overtly disdainful. That’s all. There’s something awry with my wiring and I can’t fix it.
Those of you who can do math, please consider letting go of the idea that I’m lazy, or the product of a broken society. I realize this means I’ll have to tolerate your inability to differentiate between ‘women’ and ‘woman’, Mr. Hmong speaking math professor, without feeling like you’re just careless. I’ll have to let go of my little twinge of superiority when you misspell words like there, their and they’re, you’re, your, were, where, we’re, etc. I’ll miss feeling superior, but I’ll really understand what you mean when you say you’re just a bad speller.